Ambiguity and ambivalence fuel German novelist Hans Fallada's essential, thrilling Every Man Dies Alone, written in a mere 24 days and published posthumously in 1947. The novel has just been published in English for the first time.
An unsettling examination of the social fabric of Hitler's Germany between 1941 and 1945, it suggests that idealism comes severely dear in a society whose cornerstones are paranoia and conformity. A cautionary tale indeed, it refuses to provide easy answers.
Like Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, a probe of prewar communism, and The Lives of Others, the stunning 2006 film about East Germany in the 1980s, Every Man Dies Alone is saturated with the atmosphere of a totalitarian regime.
Based on an actual case, this is the story of Anna and Otto Quangel, a bourgeois couple who protest the wartime death of their son, Ottochen, by salting Berlin with subversive postcards. Although both are careful, they meet their match in a Gestapo investigator named Escherich, a beautifully characterized and complex figure who turns out to have a conscience despite his adherence to the Nazi cause.
Fallada's novel is wide screen and tightly focused. While the key characters are the Quangels and Escherich, lesser ones like philandering and cowardly Enno Kluge, enigmatic and compassionate Judge Fromm and grandiloquent, cruel People's Court Judge Feisler are rendered vividly. Fallada deftly takes us through the city of Berlin, rendering the Quangel apartment building at Jablonski Strasse, the book's microcosm, with immediacy and drama.
Fallada is a master of characterization, conveying complexity in driving, spare prose. (Michael Hofmann's translation is fluid and idiomatic.) Here, he efficiently depicts the relationship between Eva Kluge and her son, packing mundane aspects of family dynamics with exceptional psychological acuity:
"After dinner, she wanted to write her favorite, older boy, Karlemann, who was in Poland. She had rather fallen out with him of late, especially since he had joined the SS. A lot of bad rumors were flying around about the SS. They were supposed to be terribly mean to the Jews, even raping and shooting Jewish girls. But she didn't think he was like that, not the boy she had carried in her womb. Karlemann wouldn't have done such a thing! Where would he have got it from? She had never been rough or brutal in her life, and Enno was just a dishrag. But she would try to put some hint in her letter to him to remain decent . . . maybe she would remind him of something from his childhood, like the time he stole two marks from her and spent them on sweets, or, better yet, when he was thirteen and went out with that little floozie, Walli. The trouble there had been then, to get him out of her clutches — he was capable of such rages, her Karlemann!"
Every Man Dies Alone doesn't hurtle so much as accrete. As the Quangels pursue their quest, the Gestapo sharpens its focus. Nobody wins here, but persistence — and the belief that, eventually, regimes such as this fall of their own weight — point to a wan, if not purely evil, future.
Fallada, who wrote an earlier novel, The Drinker, while confined to an insane asylum, died of a morphine overdose in 1947, just before Every Man Dies Alone was published in German. His last work reflects the conflicts within the man himself and in the society in which he made his home. This exceptional, challenging novel forces us to consider the choices we might make were we in a similar position.
Cleveland freelance writer Carlo Wolff lost his aunt and uncle at Auschwitz. His parents were refugees from Nazi Germany.